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How Couples (Try to) Make In-House Separation Work

Are overnight guests allowed? And who gets to use the car?

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When I started working decades ago in a poor region of South Carolina we knew about couples who did the “poor man’s separation”—dividing up the small house with a blanket on a clothesline down the middle of the room. "Poor man’s separations” still happen all the time today—with one partner living in the basement or attic, and each having separate bedrooms, with little to no contact with one another. They act as roommates at best, or boarding house residents. Many do this for economic reasons—they can’t afford two residences and/or there is no one else to take them in. Others do it so they can both remain available to their children full-time.

Whatever the reason for choosing to remain together physically while definitively separated emotionally, here are some rules of engagement for couples who have made the decision and made it work:

Define the relationship. There's a continuum—from roommates who share a house and may do some things together to boarders free to go their separate ways, to every gradation in-between. The devil is always in the details, though, so they must be nailed down: Are we essentially doing what we did before, just without the physical contact and intimacy? Will we have planned time together? Can we both go off and see others—both friends and new partners? (This is usually the thorniest part of the negotiations.)

Define interactions with children. If there are children in the mix, couples must define how child-care and family time will be handled. Will they take turns—as separated parents in fully separate households do—or is family time to be maintained, like pizza and a movie on Friday night? Again, a focus on details is crucial.

Define responsibilities. Who is responsible for cleaning the house or maintaining the yard? If there's one family car, how will it be shared? Are changes in finances needed, like a clear division of household bills?

Define the space. There's a scary scene in the movie The War of the Roses in which Michael Douglas establishes an in-house separation with Katherine Turner and then gloats that he won because he had more square footage. (Note: This is not the movie to watch if you are pondering a separation!) You don’t want to be petty or power-maneuvering like Douglas's character, but couples do need to make decisions about space, especially common space like a basement or a kitchen: Does each person get strictly defined closets or a distinct bathroom?

Define next steps. Is this separation part of a larger plan? Will it continue only until one partner has saved enough money to move out? Is couples counseling continuing and will the couple put off future decisions until they see what comes of it? Will someone move out at the end of the children's school year, or when the youngest child reaches high school or college? The in-house separation, for many, is part and parcel of a larger goal—to better sort out the status of the relationship, to deal more actively with repairing it, to establish an easier transition for the children, or to be financially able to take the next emotional step.

Decide what to say to the children. If children are young—under 4, for example—they may not notice much change if basic caretaking is remaining much the same. Older children will, and will have questions: Why is Mom not home for dinner? Why is Dad sleeping in the basement? Parents need to be able to answer questions in terms that kids can understand—for example, "We are taking a break from each other because we are having a hard time, kind of like the way you felt when you didn’t want to talk to your friend last year when she hurt your feelings." The meta-message is that the parents are working on it, that they're having an adult problem, that they still love and want to take care of the children even if things seem different for a while—and that this has nothing to do with them.

Sometimes when an in-house separation begins, the children may relax some. There may have been tension or arguments before and now things may seem more settled. The general rule is for couples to actively check in with the children periodically to see how they are feeling, and to look for any behavioral changes—younger children having more difficulty sleeping or being more clingy, older children having behavioral problems at school or seeming more depressed. These are signs that they may be struggling and need to be addressed.

Check-in to fine-tune. Even if couples set a solid framework it's a good idea to take stock and fine-tune after about a week or two. Ideally it would be a sit-down business meeting—15-20 minutes tops—just to make adjustments to child-care or bill-payment schedules, for example. If the face-to-face is too emotionally difficult, couples may shift to an email exchange.

The challenge. There's a real challenge in all this negotiating and fine-tuning: that in spite of all the emotional struggles a couple is having, they suddenly must somehow become fully rational adults—assertive, relatively non-emotional, and clear about priorities and goals. In other words, everything they were likely having a difficult time doing before making this decision. If it becomes too difficult to maintain, if conversations too quickly go off the rails, help from a counselor, minister, or mediator may be welcome.

Even in times of struggle, both parties should want to be on the same page.